By Gall Sigler
Joel Shoulson, an eighth-generation mohel and Philadelphia resident, died on June 10. He was 87.
Few children get the opportunity to accompany their parents on business trips, but for Shoulson it was normal to travel around the Northeast with his father, the mohel Morris Shoulson.
It was during these trips to celebrate brit milahs across the country that Shoulson decided to take on the family mantle.
As a teenager, he received surgical training from Albert Einstein Medical Center and was certified by the Philadelphia Board of Rabbis.
At 16, under the supervision of his father, Shoulson performed his first brit milah.
In subsequent years, Shoulson performed more than 40,000 circumcisions, and his services were requested in almost half of the U.S. states and Canada.
His years as a mohel conferred him with a deep appreciation to the profession, its meaning and history.
He wrote on his website that, “The Jewish people have traveled, settled in, and absorbed more of the flavors and cultures of our planet than probably any other group. The Bris ceremony depictions you will find, will certainly reflect those travels.”
Shoulson’s family certainly had its fair share of travels. His father was born in Jerusalem and ordained as an Orthodox rabbi. He traveled across the Atlantic Ocean in 1931 to become the official mohel of Philadelphia Jewish Hospital, later renamed the Albert Einstein Medical Center.
Throughout his career, Shoulson continued to collaborate with his father in the responsibilities of the profession, and together they trained dozens of students.
For Shoulson, educating the community about the brit milah tradition was central to the job. In a 2013 interview with the Jewish Exponent, he said that, “It used to be that the mohel would walk in, perform the rituals and it was done without explanation … but I think it prevents the family from understanding the bris and appreciating the custom.”
True to his belief in the importance of education, Shoulson created an informative website about brit milah and guest lectured at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.
Lack of transparency about the process, Shoulson believed, was an unnecessary impediment to the celebration of tradition.
“The family got upset because they thought that the baby was in pain, which is a natural, psychological reaction. But we have worked to make brit milah happy occasions, and I believe that they are,” Shoulson said in 2013.
During his many years as a mohel, Shoulson developed rules that helped him ensure that the brit milah is remembered as a positive experience by friends and family.
“The first thing I do is say that no one has to stay and watch who doesn’t wish to do so. It’s not a spectator sport. There is no photography of the baby during the procedure. Also, no one has to hold the baby down and restrain him. This creates a different atmosphere,” he said in the Exponent interview.
Shoulson loved his profession: “I’m in one of the most enviable positions any Jew could be in … I’m at the center of a celebration of the birth of a new baby and I perform the mitzvah of welcoming a new member of the Jewish community,” he said.
Shoulson’s passion for the Jewish community was shared with another love — folk music. In a Facebook post dedicated to her father, Thea Shoulson wrote that “He was a beloved fixture of the Jewish and folk music communities and his memory will always be a blessing in both.”
In 1961, Shoulson helped found the Philadelphia Folk Festival, an annual summer event that takes place in Upper Salford Township. The festival celebrates the work of “superstars and rising stars alike,” and is organized by Philadelphia Folksong Society.
Shoulson is survived by his children, Thea, Alex and Michael, and a granddaughter.
Gall Sigler is an intern for the Jewish Exponent.